Could there possibly be anything left to gain from yet another adaptation of Charles Dickens' tale about crabby old Ebenezer Scrooge and his life-changing encounter with three ghosts on Christmas Eve? In the case of Disney's A Christmas Carol, the answer is a surprising, resounding yes - at least so far as the IMAX 3D version goes.
Using the motion-capture technology from The Polar Express and Beowulf, in which the faces and movements of real actors are transformed into computer-generated cartoons, writer-director Robert Zemeckis finds eye-popping, high-tech new life in Dickens' hoary chestnut.
I don't know how spectacular the film would seem in a regular 2D theater, but when viewed on a giant screen via 3D glasses, Disney's A Christmas Carol becomes what we old-timers used to call an E-ticket ride. The astonishing depth of field and fine detail results in a picture that often imparts the vertigo and stomach-tickling free fall of a roller coaster. As the title openly states, this is definitely Disney's Christmas Carol more than Dickens'. Zemeckis, who seems to have lost all interest in live-action films - this is his third motion-capture cartoon in a row, and he's remaking Yellow Submarine next - continues to hone the technology and come up with dazzling new uses for it.
When snow falls over impossibly beautiful vistas of 19th century London, you'd swear the flakes are landing on your nose. And when Scrooge (played by Jim Carrey) is sent flying through the night sky and hangs momentarily in midair, the city lights below look like something you'd see from an airplane window. For a while, Disney's A Christmas Carol almost looks too good: The visuals are so entrancing, the creases in Scrooge's wrinkled skin so vividly rendered, you're marveling at the movie instead of watching it.
But once the ghosts come calling (all three also played by Carrey), Dickens' story grabs you all over again. Zemeckis (Forrest Gump, Contact, Back to the Future), a creator of HBO's Tales From the Crypt and a co-producer of a string of B-grade horror pictures, accentuates the scary stuff to a surprising degree. Some young children at a recent preview sounded genuinely frightened at times, and even I jumped out of my chair when Scrooge's door knocker suddenly sprang to ghostly, spooky life.
But there is also considerable wonder and charm in Disney's A Christmas Carol - the Ghost of Christmas Present, who makes his entrance sitting atop a gigantic Christmas tree made of cakes and cookies and gifts, is an awe-inspiring creation - and the story still ends in a rush of uplift and happiness, although Zemeckis resists the temptation to overdo the schmaltz. His heart really belongs to the darker side of Dickens' story, though. And Zemeckis has leavened the tale with the kind of fantastic action that might send children home wondering if Dickens didn't write the Indiana Jones pictures, too. I can't wait for the inevitable Disney World theme park ride.
Disney's A Chrismas Carol opens in South Florida on Friday, Nov. 6.